Family Member Employment: One Spouse’s Decision

  • Gained new skills and honed old ones
  • Gained an appreciation for Poland and its people through learning about the country and its history, traveling to urban and rural areas throughout Poland, and meeting Poles both inside and outside the Mission
  • Maintained my resumé without significant gaps in my work history
  • Gained the respect of officers and local staff in the Mission
  • Maintained an identity separate from my spouse
  • I realize that my situation was a bit unusual in that I filled an officer position that was temporarily vacant in the Embassy. Although I didn’t have a background in public affairs, I was able to learn on the job while drawing on my writing skills and ability to coordinate and execute projects. I wrote press releases, speeches, and cables instead of research memoranda and legal briefs. I worked with FSOs and Polish staff instead of partners and paralegals. In the end it was my ability to think critically and to communicate with others that mattered rather than the specific jobs I had held in the past.

    Upon leaving post, one of my supervisors told me that the section had been hesitant to hire a spouse to fill the vacancy, “since you never know what you’re going to get with a spouse.” I was shocked to hear this comment. Although my husband had only been in the Foreign Service for two tours, I had already met dozens of spouses and partners of FSOs who had left professional careers in order to become “trailing spouses.” FSOs are diverse in many respects, but tend to be well-educated, intelligent, and ambitious; it should be no surprise that the majority of FSOs have spouses who share those traits. If those inside the Mission are worried about the quality of the spouses they hire, perhaps they should examine the responsibilities and duties of the positions they offer to them. It should surprise no one that spouses with professional training and backgrounds are not exactly clamoring to fill positions as administrative assistants.

    I would argue that while there may be some spouses who would prefer to have jobs where little challenging work is expected, most FS spouses would like to work in jobs where they are able to build on skills they already have and develop new ones. If spouses who are interested in and qualified for professional-level Mission jobs are respected as professionals and given real responsibility, I believe they will rise to the challenge and give the State Department real value in exchange for the middling salaries they are paid (we’ll save salaries as a topic for another day).

    For dual professional couples, the easiest way the Department can help in this area is to make at least some professional-level jobs available at most Missions. Such jobs would require applicants who can demonstrate the ability to think analytically, write well, and work well as part of a team. The EPAP program has successfully created entry-level officer positions for family members, although many Missions (like Warsaw) do not have any EPAP positions and in general the demand for these positions is far greater than the supply.

    State might also consider funding project-based positions for spouses that match their experience with Mission needs. In my case, once the permanent ACAO arrived at post, I focused almost entirely on programs that supported the Mission goal of the empowerment of Polish women. Other examples might include hiring a spouse with a background in social media to increase the Mission’s social media presence, or hiring a spouse with a legal or management background to help support an OIG inspection.

    I was disappointed when the Embassy did not maintain my position after I left, as I had thought my contribution would convince the section that a permanent spouse job was a good investment. Unfortunately, Mission-funded positions for family members are often the first to get the ax in uncertain budgetary environments (how I wish State would consider the long-term cost of hiring and training new FSOs to replace those who leave due to unhappy spouses who can’t find meaningful work!).

    We’re now posted back to Washington, DC. I’d like for my husband to be able to continue this career he loves, but like many spouses I’m not willing to sacrifice my career for 20-30 years just so he can. For now, I’ve found a great job in DC and am not inclined to leave it to be a fingerprinter or a security escort. I very much hope that State will make some changes to spousal employment in the next couple of years, as I would love the opportunity to live abroad again. I’m just not willing to give up my professional life to do so.

    Anne Wilder is married to a Foreign Service Officer and has lived in Australia, Brazil, Poland, and Spain. She attempts to balance her time between her two young children and her job as an attorney specializing in higher education law.

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